Living Columns & Blogs

New traditions written in the sand

My grandmother said it wasn’t summer until she stuck her toes in the sand. This would be her kind of day, watching Gracie, her toes dipping in the tide pools until the sea tickles and draws back, burying her ankles in pebbles.

Gracie’s world this week is all salt and sand, swirling water, tea parties and sun. She is 3  1/2 and at the center of an expanding circle of family: great uncles and aunts, great-grandmother, her Pop and Mimi, uncles and cousins, all watching her next move. Her skips in her pink-skirted bathing suit and monogrammed baseball cap pull all of us toward her like the tides, and we wait, as she does, for the next wave, for her giggles.

She and her sister, Lucy, are our family’s next generation. Together, she and her second cousins are shaping new traditions we couldn’t have imagined before their arrival. Then we were a family of grown-ups and almost-growns, rarely able to carve out a week in the summer to reconnect to the family who had given us our roots. But here we are, this new generation of beachcombers drawing us to sand and sea much like my grandmother did.

The children that now inhabit our family were all twinkles in God’s eye a dozen years ago, imagined bodies we hoped would one day populate us. Then Cole came along, followed by Laura Gray and Gracie, then Vance – born on my father’s birthday – and Lucy, and all those twinkles became the stars.

When I was growing up, our family flocked to my father’s beach – Kitty Hawk – with my grandparents. When our children came along, we gathered for beach week, teaching our children to swim in the swift and sometimes unforgiving surf of the northern Outer Banks. But rip tides and schedules proved tough for family beach week. My brother and his family wandered south, searching for a calmer ocean.

A few years ago, they found that beach, much like the Kitty Hawk of years ago – slow pace, soft sand. Four summers ago and a year in the making, 23 of us gathered for a weeklong celebration of my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary.

My sister and I felt the pull, and now all three families will call this community our beach home.

I can’t pretend I don’t miss my old beach. Years ago I wrote a book about the people who, drawn by time and tide to Nags Head, formed a community of family on its shore. In our years there we established traditions in cottages in and around Kitty Hawk that if we were there today would stand: Climbing Jockey’s Ridge. Driving down the beach road to Oregon Inlet to watch the boats come in. Crabbing in the sound. Hot dogs at Cap’t Franks.

On our last summer there just after my father’s death, I walked down toward the pier where he and my grandfather had spent many an hour. I could see my grandfather’s knotty fingers cutting blood worms with an old knife on the splintered pier bench, then teaching me to ply the bloody bits onto a hook. I thought about the times I had watched the water and felt the tug, not knowing whether it was fish or undertow, but reeling it in surprised when a fish actually fluttered on the end of the line.

Before heading back to the cottage, Daddy would draw the day’s catch out of my grandfather’s old Styrofoam bucket, and on a table scarred by knife and wind, he’d slide his scaling knife over the fish’s shimmery skin, his thumb holding tight to mouth and fin, scales flying in every direction.

Nobody’s been fishing in our group this week, and there is no giant sand dune to climb. I’m so new here, I’m not even sure where to ride to watch the fishing boats come in at the end of the day. But as we gather on the beach and watch Gracie, her Mimi holding her hand as she jumps the waves, I can feel my grandmother watching. It’s a stick-your-toes-in-the-sand kind of day. And this seems like just the right spot.

Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “Nags Headers.” She can be reached at